With its sadistic nuns and warped notions of ‘purity’, Mary J O’Malley’s 1977 ‘Once a Catholic’ was just part of the tongue-in-cheek cultural backlash against the Catholic Church during the ’60s and ’70s.
The piece paints a tragicomic picture of three schoolgirls going through the purgatory of O-levels and Kathy Burke, Harry Enfield’s erstwhile TV comedy co-star, takes the director’s helm for this vivid, comic staging. It begins with Cecilia Noble’s splendid battleship of a nun, Mother Peter, addressing a class of girls who have all been named after the Virgin Mary. The three central girls, and indeed the only ones we see on stage, are swot Mary Gallagher, worldly wise Mary McGinty and misfit Mary Mooney whose troubles begin when she asks about sperm in a rabbit dissection class.
There is a slightly stodgy feel to the evening as we trail through trials and misdemeanours ranging from crises of conscience about snogging to defiling a crucifix with plasticine genitals. Although it is fitfully amusing thanks to Burke’s staging and some wonderful performances, not least from Molly Logan as Mary Mooney, it feels like a resurrected museum piece rather than a classic. Part of the problem is that our perception of the Catholic Church’s misdemeanours has evolved beyond just seeing nuns as tyrannical guard dogs for young women’s purity.
That’s not to say there aren’t some very amusing moments, not least when Calum Callaghan’s convincingly slimy teddy boy, Derek, asks his girlfriend Mary McGinty why Jesus didn’t go ‘straight to Dublin. He’d have had a great time turning all the water to Guinness.’ Callaghan also has to lead the most uncomfortable moment of the evening, when Derek sexually assaults Mary Mooney as she munches biscuits in his living room. It’s a tribute to both his and Logan’s performances that this is horrifying and disturbing in equal measure.
Sean Campion’s briskly nonsensical Father Mullarkey steals every scene he’s in, not least as he offers a sausage to the unfortunate Mooney as she attempts to confess about her ordeal. On Paul Wills’s bright, amusingly caricatured set, it’s just a shame the script doesn’t feel sharper – in every other way we have the ingredients for an extremely enjoyable evening.
By Rachel Halliburton